Sunday, May 31, 2009

Early Summer Musings or Late Spring or Something

Another bright sunny day in Streeterville, yet it is still cool enough for long sleeves outside. The National Weather Service tells me that it's 69 degrees outside, but the National Weather Service does not live across the street from Lake MIchigan and its Easterly breezes. The water is an excellent shade of blue and there are a great many boaters anchored across the street, partying, and in all likelihood shivering. Saw one fool in a wetsuit swimming the mile long stretch from Ohio Street Beach to Oak Street Beach. Last I checked, the water temperature was still 52 degrees.

Friday afternoon I went for a run along the lakefront, and earlier in the day it had been 70 something degrees with Westerly winds. By the time I went out the wind had shifted and was blowing off the lake. The temperature at the Mini was duly noted at 59 degrees, not exactly bikini kind of weather. This, however did not serve as a deterrent for at least 10 young women I saw on my run. We're not talking about the active, volleyball playing sorts either. All of the above 10 female personnages were laying about in the sand, attempting the summer tan. Brrrr!

Meanwhile, at Oak Street Beach, the Beachstro had opened and numerous hardy souls were seen sitting outside, sipping wine and enjoying the beach and lake views. The newly imported palm trees have been installed for the summer, to lend a tropical air to the scene, even if the tropics never yet saw a 50 degree day. A mile up the beach at North Avenue, the Beach House was hopping. The rooftop bar there was doing a booming business. Whereas the Beachstro tends to an older, more sedate crowd with gold and platinum American Express cards, the rooftop bar at the North Avenue Beach House is decidedly younger. No wine sipping here. Cheap tap beer is the order of the day. Screw the cold. The sun is out so swim suits, shorts, and t-shirts were de rigeur.

On my way back by this locale, after I had reached the turnaround at Fullerton, and headed back home, Happy Hour had begun. With Happy Hour came a band on the rooftop. I can't say that they were good, but they were certainly loud. That seemed to please the rooftop crowd, with their cheap beer in plastic cups. What more does one need at 5 o'clock on a Friday afternoon in late May. Rock on dudes!

Yesterday was a bit warmer. Babs and I went for French bistro food and then had to try Mai Tais at the new Trader Vic's. Once located in the Palmer House Hilton, now moved to a spot near the Viagra Triangle, it was a real blast from the past. It was like a trip into 1960's America, complete with carved Tikis and an entire menu of tropical fruit drinks, designed to knock you on your unsuspecting butt. "These taste really good. I think we'll have another." Much rum in these things. OK, and I admit to the fact that I did not know until last evening that Mai Tais were invented by Trader Vic's.

Today, it has been sunny, if a bit cool, as previously noted, but Babs and I got out the tennis rackets and equipped with two new cans of balls, headed to the park for an hour of batting the ball around. Once we were actively engaged in tennis, the cool went away and the sweat began to drip. Once again, I discovered that I am really not very good at tennis, but it was fun anyway, and I'm currently experimenting with a two-handed backhand versus the old one-handed that has been with me lo these many, many years. The jury is still out on the effectiveness of two hands versus one hand. I suck at either method. It's just a matter of degrees.

Looking out the window, now that I have returned to my perch on the 14th floor, the water is a lovely shade of blue. The sky is clear enough to see all the way to Indiana. The police boats are cruising among the rows of boats parked next to one another and throwing one big party. Occasionally, it gets too rowdy and the water cops have to break up the party, just as they do when your neighbors get too loud, too drunk, and a fight breaks out. It may be a little bit cool yet, but summer is here. If it never gets any warmer this summer, I'll get used to it, pretend I'm in San Francisco or Cape Cod or somewhere. Light jackets in the evening are not such a big inconvenience. And I remind myself that it's already 90 degrees in the South, and I'm really glad I don't live there any more.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Connoisseur or Wino?

Alas, another gray day in Streeterville. At least it warmed up a little bit. Last I checked, it was 65 degrees under cloudy skies at the Mini. However, even as I write these words, the sun is attempting to break through and when I look out the windows on the 14th floor, Navy Pier and the Chicago Water Treatment Plant are bathed in late afternoon sunlight. There is hope for the morrow.

I was driving home from the Outpost in Back of the Yards today, and as I cruised down 47th Street in an Easterly direction, I noticed a man sitting on the sidewalk outside a tire store. He was the owner of a scraggly beard, and his clothes were worn and wrinkled and a bit on the dirty side. He was leaning against a fence and sipping wine from a bottle carefully enclosed in a paper bag. My immediate reaction was, "Oh Jesus. Here's this dude getting sloshed on the street in the middle of the afternoon." There are many terms we usually associate with such denizens, wino, drunk, low-life, sot, etc., etc., etc. I thought about Jethro Tull's Aqualung, "Aqualung my friend, don't you start away uneasy. You poor old drunken sot, it's only me....Sitting on a park bench. Eying little girls with bad intent...." All of these terms, images, judgements come easy from the comfort of one's car, leaving a full-time job, and commuting to a condo on the 14th floor, overlooking Lake Michigan.

Then I began to think, "What's so different about people I see in my neighborhood, or over on Rush Street, in the Viagra Triangle." On any given afternoon you can see people sitting on the sidewalks, albeit at tables placed on the sidewalks, drinking wine and watching the world go by. The gentlemen in these locales may not be "watching as the frilly panties run..." as our friend Aqualung would be, but they no doubt are eying every surgically enhanced woman under the age of 30 "with bad intent," just as our friend Aqualung watches the sub-teen crowd.

Are they really so different? One drinks wine from a paper bag. One drinks wine from a glass provided by a waiter. Both are imbibing in the middle of the afternoon. One is labeled a sicko for lusting after little girls. One is labeled a ladies man because he has the money to attract women barely old enough to drink legally. One is a wino. One is a connoisseur of fine wines. I suspect both are old, wrinkly, and greatly unattractive with their clothes off.

The difference, after all, is a matter of class. The one is poor and down on his luck. The one has cash and resources. They both are after the same thing. If you have to do it on the sidewalks in the Back of the Yards neighborhood, you're scum. If you can afford to do it at a bar on the Gold Coast, you're an exemplary citizen.

I'm not really sure what the point of this rambling is, except that we could all do with a little bit less judgement, and a lot more humanity. "There, but for the grace of god go I." Where would you be if your job crapped out on you, and you were unable to pay your bills anymore? Selling Streetwise? Begging for handouts on Michigan Ave.? Living in a flophouse? Sleeping in the park? One wrong turn in life could put any of us in the position of being judged, instead of judging. Think about that.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Blind Justice

It's another gray day in Streeterville, and this stuff is getting old. It was 73 degrees under partly cloudy skies at the Outpost in Back of the Yards. Drove myself home and voila, it's 57 degrees and overcast at the Mini, as it drives along the lakefront. Navy Pier looks dreary and lonesome. The boaters have decided it's much too crappy to be on the lake today. The newly working lifeguards are freezing their collective buns off. Memorial Day is over. It's OK to wear white. Let's get this weather thing aligned with the fashion and time of year, shall we?

Babs has jury duty this week and next. It's federal jury duty. The first time they tried to draft her for a federal jury, she appealed because she is self-employed, and when she is doing jury duty she is not working, and when she is not working, she is not making money, and when she is not making money, no money comes in to pay the bills. The measly few bucks they pay jurors does not cover one's daily expenses in Streeterville.

Babs and I are good citizens, mind you. We vote. We donate to campaigns. We recycle. We usually do our civic duty and attend jury duty. When it's the city or the county, it's usually no big deal. You go in, sit for a few hours, and go home. If you work for someone else and you're not self-employed, your employer gives you a benefit day. You continue to get your full-time salary. If you're self-employed, it's like they're punishing you for being a good citizen. Sorry, but you can't make your usual wage today. We demand your presence and we'll pay you $50 for your trouble. Don't show and we'll charge you with contempt of court and fine you several hundred dollars.

Then when you go to federal court to jury duty, you almost always end up on a jury. Personally, I have served jury duty for the City of Chicago, for the County of Cook, and the State of Illinois. I have never served on a jury in any of these jurisdictions. I served one time at the Federal Courts in downtown Chicago, and ended up on a jury for a week. A bunch of us were picked from the pool and told to go down to a courtroom to be interviewed. When I was interviewed and subsequently sent back to the pool, I was thinking, "Yes. Dodged that bullet. Get to go home now." Wrong! In Federal courts you just go back into the pool and go again and again until somebody takes you.

The second time around I was chosen, for a Civil Rights case. As it turns out I was there for a week. The woman who was charging some North Suburban cops with violating her civil rights had a spurious charge, and not a leg to stand on. She refused to get out of the car when told to do so, and had to be forcibly removed from said vehicle. She screamed obscenities and generally made a nuisance of herself, and still had to repair the broken taillight and get the license plates renewed. The jury deliberations went on for a couple of hours on Friday afternoon, and mostly came down to the fact that a couple of people on the jury are always suspicious of police. When it became obvious that we would be back on Monday if we didn't reach a unanimous decision, they suddenly changed their votes, and we got to go home, having done our civic duty.

In retrospect, my experience on the Federal jury was an educational experience. I actually got to see a court in action. I got to see how the law is carried out. I got to see the jury deliberation process, with its internal politics, warts and all. My job at the time sucked, so I didn't really mind being gone for an entire week.

Babs is not in the same position. If she is chosen for a jury, the government will be punishing her monetarily for doing her civic duty. When you run your own small business, with a staff of one, no one picks up the slack. No one fills in for you. If only blind justice could pay us all at our regular hourly rate (In this case, somewhere in the neighborhood of $100/hour) all of us could serve and not be punished for being civic-minded. OK, that's a bit much. Someone has to sit on juries for the justice system to work. It's just poorly designed, and some (Say the unemployed and the retired) are more likely than others to have legitimate time to do this kind of service.

I'm not sure what the answer is, but I'm tempted to say that we should have professional jurors. We don't have citizen soldiers. We have a professional army. We don't have citizen policing. We have professional, trained police. We don't have citizen judges, or lawyers, or mayors, or aldermen. We have professionals. They are paid to do their civic duty in serving the people. With professional jurors, those who are inconvenienced or punished monetarily for doing their civic duty would nevermore be put upon. And it would help alleviate the unemployment problem. How about it?

I am reminded at this point, of Arlo Guthrie's take on the justice system in Alice's Restaurant. "The judge came in and I took a look at the judge, and at the seeing eye dog, and I knew it was another typical case of American blind justice...." Let's just all hope that Babs isn't assigned to one of those high profile cases, and ends up sequestered.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Small Town America

It's a bit of a gray dreary day in Streeterville. Last I checked, the temperature was unable to make up its mind whether to be 59 or 60 degrees. The upshot is that it's cool and crappy at the Mini. It's late May and it's getting to be time for some warmer temperatures doggonit. Hey weather gods! Would it help if I sacrificed a goat like they did back in the day? Nah! Never been into sacrificing animals to the gods. I've run over a couple while driving on highways (Deer in Wisconsin. Big honking lizards in Australia...), but I've just never been into purposeful sacrificial stuff with animals. Barbecuing for culinary pleasure, yes. Sacrificing for the spiritual pleasure or better weather, no way Jose.

I just got back from a trip to Northern Iowa, and along the way there and back I had the opportunity to observe up close and personal a lot of small towns. It's very interesting to drive through these small towns because you never see anyone. In cities there are people on the streets. There are people in the parks. There are people on their porches. There are people everywhere you look. In small towns, you drive down the streets and there are houses. There are yards. There are cars in the driveways. There are no people anywhere.

Mind you, you may see a few cars driving down the main streets. You may see a lone person dashing from their car to the entrance of a store. You might see one odd person in their yard on a riding lawnmower. However, there are no people on the sidewalks. There are no children in the yards. The parks you drive past are empty. Look closely as you drive past. You may see the glow of TV screens through the windows. You will not see anyone outside, walking, playing, biking, talking with neighbors. Are these really movie sets, with no real people? Where the hell are the people? I know I saw a sign at the city limits that said there were 2000 people here. Where are they? What are they doing?

I know people who glorify small town life. They espouse a love for knowing everyone, for having everyone know you. They extoll the glories of the togetherness of small town life. They make it sound like one big happy family. My wife, Babs, is from a small town of 1000 people in Northern Iowa and over the years I have spent a lot of time there. It is anything but one big happy family.

In small towns, it is true that you know everyone and everyone knows you. It is also true that there is a very small window for variation on thought, opinion, lifestyle, or even what kind of car you drive. You may never see most of these people on your visits, but be sure, they are sitting in their houses watching you walk down the street from behind those windows, behind those curtains. They are judging you. They are making fun of you for the very act of walking down the street. "No one does that, here. "

Things I have learned over 20+ years of marriage to Babs and many, many visits to Northern Iowa: 1. Don't bring your running shoes and go for a morning run. People think it's a bit weird. You're a middle-aged man, after all. 2. Don't go out for a walk around town after a heavy dinner. People sit behind their curtains and stare at you. They think it's weird. 3. Don't let people know you live in a large, major city. They all think cities are crime-ridden cesspools. They think it's weird. 4. Don't drive a car that isn't white or gray. It's too flashy. They think it's weird. 5. Don't wear clothes that are maybe cutting edge. Try your best to look like everyone else. They think it's weird. 6. Don't admit to ever having been in a stage show, singing with a band, writing a poem, creating a piece of art. They think they could do that if they just put their mind to it, but they have more important things to do, and after all, artists are a little bit weird.

When I think about the sameness of small town America, I am reminded of the Japanese cultural saying, "The nail that sticks out, gets hammered down." Small town America is a bit like that. Anyone who is the least bit different gets homogenized into the mix, or they leave. Difference is not encouraged. Standing out, by virtue of your excellence, is not encouraged. (You're thought of as a showoff, a braggart.) The upshot of this is, that if you're one of the ones who stand out, for whatever reason, you leave. If you're a little smarter, you leave. If you're a little more talented, you leave. If you just see things in a slightly different way, you leave. If you're creative, you leave. If, for any of these reasons, you stand out from the norm, you're not really wanted. You either conform, or you leave.

The trouble is that most of the best and brightest, with a few notable exceptions, leave. For a great book on this phenomenon, see our friends, Maria and Pat's book Hollowing Out the Middle. Small town America has driven the talent from their midst and into the waiting arms of urban America, where they can be accepted, where there are opportunities. The remaining populous in Small Town America is, on the whole, a lot of mediocre intellects and talents and a smattering of those who have possibilities, but who have been beaten down and made to fit into the mold. There are those who tried the urban environment and when success didn't come right away or when they didn't seem to have the homegrown, ready-made group of friends and acquaintances they automatically received by virtue of being born in a small town, went back home with their tails tucked between their legs. This is not the best model for building talent, building economies, building healthy communities. "I differ, therefore, I leave."

In the meantime, I just have one suggestion, for small-town America. Get out of your houses. Meet your neighbors. Talk to one another. Walk the three blocks to the grocery store, for once. Just one afternoon, go to that empty park and hang out. Try using that empty tennis court, even if you suck at tennis. No one will care, and if they do, why should you care? Life is short. Get out of your house. Enjoy life for once, and "To hell with anyone who wants to laugh at you or criticize you for merely enjoying the life that has been given to you." Ready, Small Town America? June 1 at exactly 6PM, every one of you, go outside, and interact with one another. Say hello to someone. Find out who they really are. It'll give you all something to talk about for the next 5 years.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Summer Begins

It's amazing what a difference a day can make. Four days ago it was light jacket weather and in the 50's. Then we had 3 days of temps in the 80's a la mid-summer. Now it's 63 degrees under sunny skies in Streeterville. The irony is that it's the beginning of Memorial Day weekend.

Now I know some of you may be saying, "So what?" The point is that Memorial Day is the official kickoff for summer. The swimming pools open. Lifeguards go on duty at the beaches. Yet the weather is definitely not cooperating with some summer-like temps. The shorts will be remaining in the closet for a few days yet, at least.

When I think about it, summer being squeezed in between Memorial Day at the end of May and Labor Day at the beginning of September is kind of like American marketing's vision of the extent of summer. There are a great many other events that actually signal summer to a lot of people.

When I was a kid, summer began when school was out. Now I'm an adult and I work at a school, so "Duh!" The end of the school year still signals the beginning of summer to me. I just went from being in the little desks to being behind the big desk at the front of the room. Kids never really know how much teachers look forward to that last day of school, when the kids go home and don't come back for a couple of months. "School's out. School's out. Teacher let the mules out......" I hear from a colleague that on that last day when the kids pick up report cards, and the teachers get to go home by noon that we're (meaning the teachers) having a party in one guy's backyard. Let's just hope the cops don't get called because of a loud party in the middle of the afternoon. Headline: "Sixteen Local Teachers Arrested at Beer Bash, Orgy, and Brawl."

Because of the school schedule, there are a couple of other things that signal summer for me. Every year, just after school lets out, Wimbledon starts up. OK, I really like Cubs baseball, but that begins while it's still practically winter here in Chicago. Wimbledon means it's really summer. Nothing like a good old knock down dragout 5 set match between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal to kick the summer off.

And then if Wimbledon didn't really get the message across, the Tour de France comes along. That means that even the official meteorological definition of summer and solstice and all of that has occurred. It's serious summer. Remember the Michael Jordan years of the Bulls? We were all Chicago Bulls fans in those days. Now it's difficult, at best, to watch them. Well, I'm trying to keep up with the Tour de France. There were those seven wonderful years when we referred to that kick-ass bike race as the "Tour de Lance." "Hey let's watch Lance Armstrong kick some European butts on a bicycle for a couple of weeks. Cool." Lance is back this year. Much like a certain Green Bay quarterback, he just can't seem to give it up. Too bad he won't be quite as good this year, and will be riding in a supporting role. Maybe...Nah!

By the time these two events have lapsed, that means that it's serious middle of the summer. Lots of summer left at that point and the temperature has always warmed up by that time. Shorts, t-shirts, and flip flops. Catch a baseball game or two. Lots of outdoor dining and drinking. Lots of outdoor physical activities. This is why I live next to Lake Michigan. This, I dream of in February.

The trouble is every yin has its yang. Every positive has its negative. Every beginning of summer has its end. Now American marketing tells us that Labor Day is the end of summer. Quit wearing white ladies. Not only that, but school starts back in session. Long pants, dress shirts, and hopefully a positive outlook for the new school year. It brings a little nostalgia for the summer, recently deceased, and for the languid days of doing nothing, when you had promised you would finish so many projects, (Insert a heavy sigh here.)

Now for me, in Chicago, there is another event that signals the end of summer, and it's the Air and Water Show. As it happens, almost every year, summer's end sneaks up on me and I find myself riding my bike down the lakefront one day, when I find that I can't take the path by the North Avenue Beach House because it's blocked off in preparation for the Air and Water Show. This is always a few short days before I have to return to school for Staff Development Days the week before school starts. The Air and Water Show is a time of excitement for a great many people in Chicago, but for me it just means summer is over, and it means that I have only a few days left to try to squeeze in 15 things I meant to do during the summer, and it means that I'll have to start getting up with the alarm at 5:30 AM again. It's just a little depressing.

On the other hand, it's Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend, and I have the entire summer before me. School is almost out. The endless possibilities of a productive summer this year are still there. The boat parties and the sailboat regattas across the street from my perch on the 14th floor are just beginning.

Being Memorial Day weekend, and the official kickoff of summer, I will be gone for a few days, and I hope everyone enjoys the long weekend. Welcome to summer boys and girls. Hope to see you next week. The view from the 14th floor is stunning in the summer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How Much Do You Spend? On What?

What a change a couple of days can make. Two days ago it was in the 50's and I was wearing light jackets. Today it's 88 degrees and sunny. It went from early Spring weather to Mid-Summer weather. I had to turn the air conditioning on. Went out and ran 6.5 miles in this stuff and came back to the A/C. There are rewards in life.

Speaking of rewards, I started teaching a unit in Consumer Economics to two groups of high school Juniors this week. I may be doing the instruction, but the discussions with high school Juniors is instructive to me. For one thing they actually participate in the discussion. For another, their views of money and what they need tell me worlds.

We began a discussion yesterday of what are wants and what are needs, and I asked them to make a list of what they need, and to figure out how much those needs will cost for a year. I learned a lot from this discussion. One thing I learned is that girls and boys have very different views of what you need. Some kids have a practical streak a mile long, and know all the ways to cut corners. Some kids are hoping to marry someone very rich to support them in a style to which they'd like to get accustomed.

Some of the things we learned are "You might want a Mercedes, but your available resources may tell you to buy a Kia, or even a used Chevy, or you might have to settle for a bus card." "You might want an Armani suit, but your resources may dictate that you go to the Men's Wearhouse and buy a cheapie for a lot less."

Anyway, today we determined that food, shelter, and clothing are necessities. Then we began to lay out these necessities one by one and discussed how much they would cost. We had a discussion about how much it costs for a person to eat for a week, and talked about how you can eat rice and beans every night pretty cheaply, but how you need something more than that or you might die of boredom. We tallied up the cost per week. We tallied up the cost for a year. We put it on the board.

Then we got into clothes. This is where the real discussion began. We talked about socks and underwear and how much they cost. We got into the cost of jeans. How many pairs of jeans do you need? How many shirts do you need? How many pairs of shoes do you need? This is where the boy versus girl thing came in. I had one girl in my 3rd period class who thought she needed 15-20 pairs of jeans. Another was non-committal about how many pairs of shoes she needed, but it was apparent that she thought she needed a pair of shoes for many different sorts of occasions, moods, or days of the week. As for the girl with the need for a great many pairs of jeans, I found myself wondering, "Do you ever do laundry girl? Why on earth do you need that many pairs of jeans? Who's going to pay for these things?"

Now all of these things were verbalized in class and there was much giggling, but serious consideration. We talked about the fact that everybody has to go to weddings and funerals and needs at least one good set of dress up clothes, and we talked about how much that would cost. At this point we learned that a great many teenagers are very informal and don't feel the need to dress up to go to cousin Suzy's wedding or Aunt Edna''s funeral. Interesting point. None of the Mexican-American boys owned a suit, but the one African-American boy in the room owned a suit. Cultural differences on expectations and needs.

Finally, we took a look at rents, utilities, and such. I was actually surprised that most kids actually know how much their families pay in rent. Trouble is, most of their ideas about rent are based on how much it costs for rent on a place big enough for a family. I heard about rent on 3, 4, and 5 bedroom apartments. We had to extrapolate how much the kids thought it would cost to rent a 1 bedroom place for themselves. How much would it cost for utilities? I let them know that we were only considering absolute necessities, so cable TV bills, and telephone bills were excluded. We did include transportation costs so an individual could get back and forth to work.

Ready? The bottom line is somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 per year. One person, just to live a bare minimum life, needs $20,000 per year. I could see the awareness dawning in the eyes of these kids. Whoa! Just to get by, I need $20,000 per year. That means I need $20,000 actual dollars, not before tax dollars. $10 per hour will get you just about $20,000 per year, so you need $25,000 per year to make it. We'll be taking this idea forward, with that in mind. Meanwhile the girl with the shoe thing is still holding out to marry some guy with money. Maybe she will. Maybe she won't. At least I know she's planning on going to college.

All of this being said, I guess I wish someone had made me think about this stuff at a much younger age. I just sort of blundered through life for a long time and didn't really think about stuff. For that matter, if any of us really were pressed to think about what we spend money on, and what we really need, could we? Could any of us live up to my one student Jose's cheap as they come standards? Man this kid was lecturing us all. "Plan ahead. Think about what you need so you don't run out of money at the end of the month. Buy stuff in bulk, if you're going to use it. It's cheaper." Man I could hear this kid's bones squeak, he was so cheap. But he has a handle on what life costs and how to manage his resources. He's going to make it. Think any of us can meet his standards?

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

R. Key In Exile

What a great day. Sometimes dreams really can come true, and not even in Disney movies, but like for real. Been wishing really hard for it to warm up to early summertime temps, and voila, it's 84 degrees under sunny skies at the Mini. Windows down, sunroof open, radio cranked, sunglasses on. Oh yeah. "Hot town, summer in the city...."

I ran into an old friend the other day and we talked a lot about the old days and being from Arkansas originally and all, and he told me he'd like the opportunity to sort of guest host on this site sometime. I thought about it and though I normally reserve the views here for myself, and by the way the view from the 14th floor this afternoon is stunning. At any rate, I'd like to turn this over to an old friend, this afternoon, R. Key.

Nice to meet you. The name is R. Key. If you really must ask, the R. is for Robert and being from Arkansas originally, there are about a million Bobs and Bobbys and guys with middle names of Bob and I just kind of wanted to separate myself from the crowd, so I became R. Key. OK, there is the thing about my middle names as well. My Momma had a thing about old Francis Scott Key who wrote the Star Spangled Banner and the full name is actually Robert Francis Scott Key, and I don't even want to hear an inkling of a joke about that. As a kid I heard enough renditions of "Oh say can you see...." and jokes about "Hey Key! Written any songs lately?" to drive anyone crazy. Got into a couple of fights when they didn't take kindly to my responses to their lame-ass jokes. Anyway, it got shortened to R. Key. I've been happy with that.

As it happens, I also got the heck out of Dodge when it came to living in Arkansas. Seems that when I shortened it to R. Key, some older folks thought it sounded like Arky and started asking me stupid crap like "Yo Arky, how'd you get out of the zoo?" Seems there used to be this big honkin' alligator at the Little Rock Zoo. Someone caught it in Lake Conway sometime just after the deluge and by the time I was old enough to see him he was this 11 or 12 foot long critter that just kind of laid around and didn't move much. I always wondered if he was even alive. Maybe he was just a big stuffed alligator, and the zookeepers didn't want to admit that he died 75 years before. Anyway, I left. Nobody in Chicago ever makes R. Key to Arky references.

Funny thing about being from Arkansas, though. People make the most incredible assumptions about you. Been living and working in Chicago (Friends back in Arkansas call it "Living in Exile.") for the better part of 25 years. Sat in a bar a few years back with a girlfriend from Iowa and was shooting the breeze with some commodities trader and after a while he asked, "Where are you from?" Girlfriend told him she was from Iowa, and I told him I was from Arkansas and he called us liars. "No way. You guys are from New York or somewhere. There is no way you guys are from Iowa and Arkansas." Apparently, in the view of various sophisticates, people from Iowa and Arkansas are not allowed to be A. intelligent B. well-read C. reasonably sophisticated individuals who've seen a great deal of the world. Also, we're not supposed to read stuff like the New York Times. Go figure.

Specifically, when you tell people that you're from Arkansas, and they don't know you well, several rude assumptions come up. Usually they assume that you listen to country music. Thought I left that crap behind when I left Arkansas. I've seen the inside of any number of jazz and blues clubs and I like them. Enough said? Oh, and I like impressionist art, too. Shhh! Our little secret.

Then when you tell folks that you're from Arkansas, somehow people assume that you're some rube from the farm. Shit, I grew up in a suburb with a freeway running through the middle of it. There was an Air Force Base there and I know lots about B-52s and B-58 Hustlers, and sonic booms, and missile silos. Played Little League Baseball for the Martin Titans. (Martin-Marietta Company now. Maybe you've heard of them. They have lots of military contracts with the U.S. government. They saw to it that Titan II missiles were strewn about the countryside in my youth.) Don't know nothing about no friggin' farms. First farmers I ever knew were when I went to a college with an Ag Department.

Had a girlfriend from Central Illinois once and she must have had some pretty strange ideas of what Little Rock was, she of Bloomington, Illinois origins. We were both students at Southern Illinois University and we hopped in the car for Little Rock for a long weekend. I'd seen where she was from and I thought she needed to see where I was from. We came around the corner on I-40 and North Little Rock was laid out all flat and shit, and off on the other side of the Arkansas River you could see downtown Little Rock. Apparently she had no idea that Little Rock had a skyline. Hey, it's not Chicago, but there are 40-45 story bank buildings and shit. All I remember is that girl from this town of about 50,000 or so going "That's Little Rock? I thought. Well you know, I thought...." Like I said, it's not Chicago, but Little Rock-North Little Rock together is about 250,000 and that's a city, not a little farm community. Guess I grew up pretty much like everybody else in America, just with a Southern accent, that's all.

I guess the real kicker is, though, when you tell people that you're from Arkansas, a hell of a lot of people just assume you're a bigot and a racist. Black people get antagonistic. White people start saying really stupid racist stuff that makes you cringe. I just have to set that shit straight. Along with the dumbass jokes about Arky, and the Francis Scott Key references, I used to get into a lot of scrapes with the rednecks and the bigots. Couldn't put up with that. As I see it, people are just people. Some get born with white skin. Some get born with brown skin. Some get born with all kinds of shades in between. Don't mean shit. What's important's what's on the inside. Don't like bigots from Arkansas. Don't like bigots from Chicago either. As old Daffy Duck woulda said, "You're despicable!"

Anyway, thanks for letting me talk at you. Maybe I'll come visit again sometime soon. That's about it for today, though, for R. Key in Exile.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Acceptable Behavior

The water is blue. The temperature is a moderate 68 degrees, but the sailboats are gone. It's Monday. The flotilla had to return to the office to make some money to pay for the expensive habit. Back again this next weekend, no doubt, in copious numbers. If you hadn't noticed, this coming weekend will be Memorial Day weekend, the official kickoff of the summer season. Let's just hope that some summer temperatures finally arrive in Streeterville. Getting mighty tired of this light jacket thing. Looking forward to some shorts and flip flops weather.

I like to tackle all of the major issues besetting humanity in my posts, and today is no different. I've been wondering, "What is acceptable behavior on Facebook? When is it crossing the line into the unacceptable?" For the most part Facebook is pretty loosey goosey and most things are acceptable, but sometimes people say things or post things that sort of stick in your craw. Know what I mean?

Facebook is pretty innocuous most times. You friend your real friends, your family, a few assorted people you went to high school or college with. You take stupid quizzes. Everyone navel gazes and posts crap about their day and what they're doing at any given moment and it's OK. People kibitz and kid one another, and it's OK.

Then there is a lot of blatant self-promotion that goes on. I have musician friends who use it pretty exclusively to promote their careers, where they're playing, etc. I have writer friends who use it as a place to promote their work, their blogs. Who me? Why I'd never....Ok maybe once or twice. Then there are Facebook friends who you don't really know, but who have friended you so they can promote their acting careers, their radio shows, their art exhibits. Know what? That's OK too. It's all a part of the phenomenon that is Facebook. It is true that I defriended a radio station that had a Facebook page as though it were a person. That was all too blatant advertisement. I kept their morning DJ, who I listen to as I drive to work as a friend, but the station's call letters as a friend, no.

The thing that's been bugging me, though, is that some people use Facebook as a forum for their agendas. I pursue personal agendas here in this space on a regular basis, but not on Facebook. Specifically, religious and political agendas are things that I think should be declared off-limits on Facebook. I have religious relatives, atheist friends, gay friends, friends with politics from the left, high school acquaintances with leanings to the right. Some things are bound to offend someone. Some things are going to offend me. Want to call me a friend on Facebook? Don't post that silly crap. Don't want to see it on my Facebook page.

So what am I talking about specifically? I am an openly leftist individual with a serious lack of religion in my life, with artsy leanings, and some very liberal views on people's rights to have their sex lives left alone. On several occasions during the last Presidential election, someone I am related to made disparaging remarks on Facebook regarding my candidate, including, "If Obama gets elected, I'm going to Canada." I let that slide, in spite of the fact that I was thinking, "So move yourself to Canada. Dare you. They're even more liberal there than we are here. They have National Healthcare, and pay taxes out the wazoo." At any rate, I let that slide, in spite of the fact that I found it a bit embarassing. I've spent a lifetime carefully cultivating a group of like-minded friends, most of whom are Facebook friends and if they came to my page, they would see this stuff, and in all likelihood go, "Who is this right-wing bigot on R.D.'s page?"

After the election, the same relative began making lots of "Praise Jesus. He rules," kind of statements and it began to get a little touchy with me, being a non-religious sort and all (I believe the word is atheist, OK?) Then said relative began promoting books. One was a book by some moron who claimed that he was an atheist when he was younger, but had now seen the light. This was dangerously close to an attack on me personally. All I could think was that this guy couldn't be very bright in the first place if he was just claiming atheism as a rebellion against something and then recanted at the first opportunity. Nevertheless, I let it slide.

Then came the capper. Said relative, posts a promotion for a book that claimed to show the errors in logic of evolution, and how it cannot possibly be real science. I blew a gasket. This was first of all an embarassment to me to have someone I'm related to promoting creationism on my Facebook page, but more to the point, it was just stupid. Science is based on observation and fact. Religion is based on faith in something that cannot be observed or proven. Evolution is proven fact. Religion is not. In one quick and easy stroke, I defriended a relative. OH SHIT!

The thing is, however, my Facebook page was starting to annoy me with all of this religiosity on it. Now the religiosity was gone. It was good. I, no doubt created a stir in the family, who I keep at a distance for a good reason, but in my world, life was a little better. Everyone else on my page knew how to behave appropriately. They amused me. They didn't piss me off.

Now there is the girl I went to high school with who posted some National Rifle Association inspired, Republican propaganda that really annoyed me. It was just the once, but hey, "To friend or not to friend?" Hmmmm. We'll see.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Blatherings for a Saturday.

While it has been a cool day for late May, it has been a beautiful, sunny day. It is currently 62 degrees under partly cloudy skies. Looking out the windows on the 14th floor, the lake has taken on a lovely azure color today that I usually associate with tropical waters in much warmer climes. Day by day, more and more boats come back. Last night there were large cruise boats visible from the windows and it turns out that they were hosting....Ready for this?....Proms. Who gets to have a Senior Prom on a cruise boat? Man, makes my Senior Prom...Excuse me, Senior Ball. We had a Senior Ball, not a Prom. It was still held in a friggin gym, though.

Ah but I date myself. I'm sure the Prom on the boat was absolutely lovely, if a bit pricey. I mentioned that I bought a ticket...Excuse me...I sponsored a young Latina lady to the Prom because she bought a pricey dress and then didn't have the price of a ticket to the Prom and her parents are poor and couldn't come up with the cash. Why? The tickets are $95 apiece. The Prom was held in a ballroom at the original Hilton Hotel on Michigan Ave. Man, do these guys cough up the cash for two tickets if they have a date, or do they go Dutch (No offense to any Dutch people out there intended. Some of my best friends are Dutch. My mother's maiden name was Vandevier. I really like tulips and windmills. I'm thinking about buying wooden shoes. I'm investing in dikes and water pumping technology. And I said dikes, not dykes, so no offense to women who like other women either, OK? Remember the stereotypes blog? That was two days ago, I believe. More on that later.)? Anyway, god knows how much it costs for a ticket to a Prom on a cruise boat. Then the kids like to rent limos as well so they don't drive drunk or high or anything. All of this as a celebration for graduating from high school when no one gets anywhere today without a college degree, preferably an advanced degree. But the high school kids are springing (or their parents more likely) for hundreds and hundreds of dollars for a celebration of "I did what every schmo is expected to do at age 18, regardless of anything.

Back to the little aside above, though. It's difficult to know what is going to elicit a response when I write these things. At times I attempt to purposely provocative to no result. I put up one post a short while ago in which I compared all religions to stupid superstitions like believing in bad luck from black cats and what did I get in response? Nada, that's what. Then I write some blathering about comfort foods and TV when you're sick and people comment to beat the band. Loved it. Go figure.

Recently, I've been on a more serious turn in my writings and a couple of days back I wrote a piece about stereotypes and how people feel free to make fun of their own but bristle when anyone outside of the group does the same. A very small part of this post was a mention of how African-Americans use the N word in reference to themselves, but no one outside of the black community is allowed to do so. Just mentioned it in passing on my way to other things like jokes about people from Indiana for instance. Jennifer, have you heard the one about the girl from Valparaiso?

Honestly, Views From the 14th Floor has a pretty small following but somehow I managed to elicit a response from an African-American gentleman from Los Angeles when I saw fit to include my reference to the N word. You can see his response in the comments. I was directed to a You Tube video that went on about N***r as opposed to N***a and how N***a is a term of empowerment for black people. It seems the gentleman in question has written a book about this topic. How in the heck did this guy find this little blog from Chicago, and why did he see fit to comment? Don't know. It made me think about things a little. I checked out his website, and his You Tube posting, and it all seemed to me like a little self-promotion. I hope his book sells well.

Went to my Site Meter and started looking at where the hits were coming from. What's up with hits on my little blog from Ireland, the UK, Australia, India, the Netherlands, Norway, L.A., New York, Arkansas, and Oklahoma? Who knows? Kind of flattering, I suppose. Then again, some of them may be random hits, of marketing firms who hit on certain key words that show up in searches. You just never know what is going to get a hit. Does any of this mean anything? Again, who knows? I think I'll have a glass of wine with my wife, go for dinner, and some jazz. Have a wonderful Saturday.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of Education

It has been a dreary day, both at the Outpost in Back of the Yards, and in Streeterville. Last I checked, it was 57 degrees with pouring rain at the Mini. Friday afternoon traffic is generally a crawl, but when it rains it gets even worse. Having finally arrived home, the view from the 14th floor today is somewhere this side of dismal.

Life in education was pretty much uneventful until just before the last period of the day when it took an ugly turn. Stupid Latino gang-banger decided to shove his way into my classroom looking for someone for some gang related nonsense. I stopped him from entering (physically) and he took issue and screamed and yelled and called me ugly names and I had him carted off to the Dean of Students. The scene in the hallway drew an amazed crowd. Attendance in the last period was low. A lot of people seem to have Friday afternoon appointments with something.

Twenty minutes into the final period of the day, I had managed to get my class on task and finished documenting the occurrence in the hallway. I called the main office and asked a security person to come to my room to get said incident report. When I stepped into the hallway, clutching said incident report, 5 African-American gang-bangers came running down the hallway screaming and yelling, trying to get away from the Security guard on the floor below. When they saw me they attempted to hide in an alcove where there are lockers. l had to order them out of the locker area and off my floor. Two of the Bozos thought they were hiding behind the end of the locker row and I could clearly see half their bodies sticking out in plain sight. Not the sharpest tacks in the box. Turns out another teacher down the hallway had spotted them "running in the halls, making a great deal of noise, and writing on the walls with markers."

Jesus! Turns out 2 of the above belonged in my class, but had not come to class. Two of the above are in my division (homeroom or advisory group). I had to document who they were, look up their ID #, and fill out 4 more incident reports. I have no clue who the 5th clown was, just another BD (Black Gangster Disciple). In the interim, I had to keep my class on the task of taking a quiz without cheating, and grade a couple of papers to boot.

Have you ever had the urge to smack someone up the side of the head with a two by four, bounce their head off the wall a couple of times? Amazingly, in 15 or so years of teaching in all the wrong schools I have managed not to indulge myself even once. Tempted many times, mind you. At times like these I have to remind myself of the success stories. We just got our ACT results for this year, today. Average ACT scores in this school have averaged about 15 in the past. This year a fairly large number of kids scored 17 or 18 and several scored above 20. For the record, in schools such as the Outpost, this is good. Forget all you know about ACT scores, or don't know. Low income minority kids with a score of 20 or above can go to the University of Illinois, not Harvard, but a pretty good school nevertheless.

In another story from the Outpost, one girl, who is in my World Studies class and also is one of the AP students I tested last week, came to me with a plea yesterday. It seems she had bought her Prom Dress and her family is pretty poor and she didn't have any money to pay for her ticket. OK brace yourself ladies and gents. The Prom is being held in a ballroom at the Hilton on Michigan Avenue and tickets go for (Drum roll please.) $95. Yikes! 99% of our students qualify for free or reduced lunch, (That means their family is living below the poverty line.) and they're going to a Prom where tickets go for $95 a pop.

Anyway, Mr. Ray was asked to "sponsor" said student for the Prom. She looked at me expectantly. She was terrified to ask. She had to ask another teacher to come ask for her, and I told that teacher to send her to see me personally. Then she had to bring a friend with her to help her ask. It was difficult. There was never a question. I went to the ATM and got the cash, and plopped it down with the lady who runs the Prom. Every woman in the building, consequently went "AWWWW! That's sweet of you Mr. Ray. That's really sweet." Apparently anonymity of benefactors is not an issue at the Outpost.

Anyway, I constantly have to remind myself of the nice stories of the achievers, and the good kids who just want to go to the Prom to remind myself of why it is I do what I do. It's sad that these kids co-exist, walk the halls side by side with the clowns, the Latin Kings, the GD's, the BD's, the kids who are overdue to be locked up, the kids who go to school just to take care of drug business, and do their best to disrupt the learning experiences of those who actually want to learn. They yin. The yang. The dark. The light. It takes both sides. Welcome to life in a real big city school.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I must admit that it's a darned good day in Paradise, aka Streeterville. It's 72 degrees under clear blue skies at the Mini, a day for opening the sunroof, rolling down the windows, cranking up the radio, and letting the breeze blow back your hair, if you have any to blow. Personally I'm thinking of growing out my eyebrows this summer, kind of comb them back over the top of my head and give myself a curly, wild, hairy topper. Only trouble with that scenario is the fact that they'd be covering my forehead on the way to the top of my head, and growing out the ear hair is equally ridiculous. Had a friend who wanted to market what he called the old Jewish guy Chia Pet. Nothing growing on top, but a ring around the edges of the head and scads sprouting from the ears and nose. For the record, the gentleman in question was Jewish himself, so I suppose he's allowed to make fun.

It's really odd how people feel that they can poke fun at themselves and their family, and their ethnic group, but when someone from outside the group does it, they're off base. It's sort of like when I was a kid and my older brother felt it was OK if he beat on me, but God forbid if somebody else tried that. They were in for a pounding if they messed with his little brother, blood being thicker than water and all. You get the picture.

But more to the point, I've worked with a lot of African-American students and professionals and a great many of them use the N word with impunity, say rude things about each other, call each other names, but oh don't even think about you doing that. That will get you in deep do do. Personally, I would never think of using the N word with anybody, although I am often tempted to call a dumbass a dumbass. That goes beyond racial lines. I've known a great many dumbasses of all races in my lifetime. I'm not fond of any of them.

The same sort of thing goes for most racial or ethnic groups. No one wants to think that someone is badmouthing their particular group. When you start identifying yourself with a particular group and someone says something derogatory about that group in general, by extension they are saying something derogatory about you, in particular. Pisses you off. Forget the fact that sometimes they may have a legitimate point.

When I look at myself, I discover that I too have tendencies in this direction. I grew up in Arkansas, and believe me I have a lot of problems with Arkansas in particular, and the South in general. I don't like rednecks. I don't like country music. I have a problem with fundamentalism. All of the above can be found in copious amounts in Arkansas in particular, and the South in general. Rednecks and fundamentalists and country music fanatics? I'm related to a great many of them. I feel free to make fun to my heart's content. I actually had one branch of the family who had 2 or 3 junked cars in the yard at all times, and who raised hounds for hunting raccoons ("Coons" in the vernacular.) I have no compunction about making fun of these relatives who were the consummate "Redneck Clan." (Although they never belonged to the Klan, to my knowledge.) You don't want to go there, however. Uh, uh.

The thing is, though, I have spent most of my adult life in places like Minneapolis and Chicago, and when someone from one of these lovely metropolises begins making judgements about Arkansas in particular, or the South in general, it definitely gets my hackles up. "Hey Bozo! You're talking about me! I'm from Arkansas in particular, and the South in general, and I am not one of those dumbass redneck, beer swilling, country music listening, pickup driving, gun owning yokels you're making fun of here! Want your ass kicked? Huh?" I usually restrain myself from those kind of tirades, but the inner dialogue is so rich many times.

Babs is much the same way when it comes to Iowa, her state of origin. She badmouths Iowa and small town America on a regular basis, but oh don't go doing it in front of her if you're not from there. She has taught me a thing or three about these attitudes. There are degrees of annoyingness. The very worst is when people from New York choose to look down their noses at your home state, your people. On a 1 to 10 scale of annoyingness, New Yorkers denouncing everything that is not from New York rates a 37.

I am tempted to say that New Yorkers have a chip on their shoulders about people from elsewhere saying anything about their place of origin, but New Yorkers seem to have a chip on their shoulders about everybody and everything that is not New York. Oh damn, just earned the ire of a New Yorker somewhere.

I guess the truth is that it's the grain of truth in all of these ugly stereotypes that make us cringe. We all want to believe that we have risen above it, but when someone drags out those stereotypes and starts pointing fingers, we're not really secure enough to believe that we have. They may be talking about us as individuals, and not about dumbasses in general. Believe me I love the City of Chicago, but it has its share of dumbasses, of a great many races, creeds, colors, religions, sexual proclivities, etc., etc., etc. I've been in Chicago long enough now that when someone from another part of the country, says something about Chicago in particular, and the Midwest in general, I get my hackles up. Oh great! Now I'm defensive about Arkansas, the South, Chicago, the Midwest, white people in general, men, those with artistic inclinations.... Man the list is just getting longer by the day. Maybe I'll just move to New York one day and badmouth everybody. Huh!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


A gray and rainy day in Streeterville. Currently it's 68 degrees at the Mini. The sky, the lake, the view from the 14th floor is just gray. Another of those London-like days. Perhaps I should count them, to get a London index for the area. We'll contact the statistics department.

As Pogo used to say, "Looks like Friday the 13th comes on a Wednesday this month." As with many superstitions, I'm not quite sure where this belief in bad luck on Friday the 13th came from. Apparently Wikipedia isn't either, though they carted out various theories. What they did give me was "Paraskavedekatriaphobia" which is the word for fear of Friday the 13th." (Funny I thought it was "badteenagerslashermovie.") Then there is triskaidekaphobia, the general fear of the number 13 itself. I know you all have been chomping at the bit for this bit of verbal trivia. Now you have it.

Frankly, most superstitions seem pretty silly. Salt over your shoulder? What a waste. Step on a crack. Break your mother's back. Watch me. Black cats? I've owned several over the years. Good kitties, one and all. Break a mirror and bad luck? Well, it might be bad luck if you don't pay attention and cut yourself on the shards. Don't walk under ladders. I can see that one. Stuff falling on your head is bad, no argument. For that matter saying "Bless you," when someone sneezes is pretty darned silly. I did find out where that originated. It seems that during the Middle Ages people believed that when you sneezed your soul came out through your nose and could be grabbed by the Devil, thus the need for "Bless you." Oh my.

There are amazing things that people choose to believe boys and girls. All of those old polytheistic religions had some wonderful stuff, gods springing from the heads of other gods. Gods who caused the sun to come up in the morning and set in the evening by driving a flaming chariot across the sky. Gods who caused the rains to come and the crops to flourish. How about that Hindu guy Gonesh, with an elephant's head. For that matter, I've always found the concept of reincarnation a bit questionable. We all come back again and again? The population keeps getting bigger. Where do the new souls come from? Which people are newbie souls and which are recycled? Is anyone really enlightened enough to get off the wheel?

Truthfully, I always liked the Marvel Comics guy Thor, but hey the real Norse god version, creating thunder with his hammer? It seems that a lot of the old gods just were primitive ways of explaining things that science later explained for real, and then the gods got debunked. Then along came things like this one religion where people believed that these two gods, Ahura Mazda (Sounds like a Japanese car, no?) the good god, and Ahriman, the evil god of darkness, battle for control of people's souls and depending on which you choose, you are rewarded with Paradise or punished with a fiery furnace forever. Sound familiar? It's Zoroastrianism and predates Chrisitianity by 400-500 years.

It all sounds a little goofy to me. There's this one religion that actually believes that there was this guy who was born to a mother who was never impregnated, or was she impregnated by an angel? I forget. Then it turns out the guy is the son of an omnipotent god who allows him to be tortured and killed. Then the guy gets up and walks away after he's dead and then he rises up to the sky. He promises "Oh I'll be back one day." Right! At least Douglas MacArthur followed through on his promise and did return to the Philippines. Gotta respect that. Anyway back to this last goofy superstition. In this religion there is a Paradise (Heaven) and a punishment (Hell) and a good guy (Jehovah) and a bad guy (Lucifer), and at the end of time a big shootout at the OK Corral and the good guys are gonna win and live triumphantly forever and the bad guys will be punished for their treachery forever. Guess what. That is Christianity in a nutshell, but it is every last bit cribbed from Zoroaster. Check it out. I do not lie. Only the names were changed to protect the innocent. What? You mean Jesus was a plagiarist? Yeah. And the Romans ripped off the Greeks.

I guess the thing that kills me is that no one has ever seen God and yet they persist in believing in this guy. No one except schizophrenics have ever had a conversation with God. People pray and pray, yet he never returns the call. Since the scientific revolution, it seems that miracles have all but gone away. Nowadays we can explain most phenomena scientifically. And for all the talk of eternal souls, no one I have ever known has seen one, except in the movies or on TV.

The dictionary tells us that a superstition is a belief not based on reason or knowledge. That, boys and girls is what is known as "faith." It is what every religion in the world is based on. It is also what belief in the bad luck of the number 13 is based on. Sorry to report this but I have to admit that I find every religion in the world guilty as charged, in this respect. Religions may give a great many people solace. They may pass along some social norms and moral precepts, but that doesn't make them true any more than the belief that black cats crossing your path engender bad luck. Christians like to believe that all other religions sound pretty silly when examined closely. Taken from an objective standpoint, so does Christianity.

Personally I prefer the teachings of the Reverend RD and The Church of There Ain't No God, But There Sure As Hell Is Morality. Now if you'll excuse me I find that it's bad luck to continue writing beyond the accepted dinner hour.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Things Kids (And Other People) Don't Know

It's a very pleasant day in Streeterville, 64 degrees under clear blue skies at the Mini. The boats are back, sailboats, power boats, sailing cruise ships, power cruise ships. Little by little the appearances of warm weather are returning and with those appearances come the high spirits that pass for normalcy in the warm weather months. Just imagine if we lived in Iceland. Two or three hours of slanting yellowish sunlight in late December. Two or three hours of semi-darkness in late June. The alternating mania and depression of that kind of climate must wear on you. Having been to Reykjavik once, I must admit that they produce some very pretty blonde people, though. Too bad the economy just collapsed, and half the population is out of work.

I was chatting with a class today about the 1960's and the Civil Rights movement. In the course of explaining the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and their role in the Civil Rights movement, I mentioned the special political role that churches play in the African-American community, in addition to their traditional spiritual duties. Having made that point, I went on to explain that that was, in all likelihood, a large reason that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. became such a major player in the Civil Rights movement. He was a minister, after all, and his doctorate was in theology.

Mind you, this was a class full of Mexican-American students with a couple of Puerto Ricans thrown in, so they were not exactly up on the finer points of black culture in America, except as it relates to Black Gangster Disciples vs. Latin Kings. The question that came from seemingly out of the blue and threw me at first was the following, though. "So that's like a profession? Those guys get paid?" I looked at the young lady with the question and replied, "Ministers, you mean?" She replied, a bit excitedly, "Yeah. Ministers. They get paid?"

I had to admit, "Yes, they get paid. It's their job. They get a college degree to be a minister, to be the guy that gets up in front of the church every Sunday morning. Priests, ministers, they're all paid. There may be a few store front ministers who have a regular job during the week, and just do that on Sunday, but most of them, well, it's their job, their profession."

Then came the questions from the floor. "So where does the money come from to pay them?"

"Well, the members of the church pay their salaries. You know, every Sunday morning they pass the collection plate, and people put money in. Some members give more. Some give less, but they pay the bills of the minister, and pay to build the churches, and for the bills for keeping the church open, and anything else the church does."

About that time, it occurred to me that most Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans are Catholic, so I felt it necessary to bring this into the discussion as well. "Priests in the Catholic Church are paid by the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church also takes regular donations from parishioners, but they also own a lot of property and various things. Priests are paid as well." "So how much does the Pope make," came the question from the floor. This was taking a truly weird turn, but in education you have to use everything you get as a teachable moment. I replied, "I have no idea how much the Pope makes, but he's like the CEO of a large organization. Just like teachers make less than Principals and Principals make less than area supervisors who make less than the CEO of the entire school system, the Parish Priests make less money and get less perks than the Bishops, who make less than the Archbishops and Cardinals, who make less than the Pope. I assume he is well taken care of. He's like the CEO. The Cardinals are like regional managers, and so forth."

This all came from noting that Dr. King was a minister by profession, not a professional Civil Rights Activist. How did these kids come to reach their Junior year in high school and not know that ministers and priests are paid professionals? We didn't even get into the Nuns. The thing is, I, and most people I know, accept certain things as basic cultural literacy. We just assume certain things are known by everyone. When you work in a school that is in an immigrant community, or sometimes just in a poor community of anyone, certain things of cultural literacy are not known. That is part of the problem. We don't have to just educate the kids in our specific disciplines. We have to give them cultural literacy as well, and we cannot assume that they know things that kids from what we know as middle America accept as the norm.

Frankly, even in the middle class, there are variations on what people know and take for granted. I grew up Southern and fundamentalist. My wife grew up Midwestern and loosey goosey Methodist. Her parents were Go to church on Easter and at Christmas kind of not very serious religious sorts. I take things for granted about Biblical literacy. Hey I can quote the Bible with the best of them. Babs hasn't a clue about a lot of that. There are things that she grew up with that I haven't a clue about. Some of the things I have heard come from the mouths of adult professionals as regards other cultures and sub-cultures go beyond ignorance into the offensive. Often it's just a case of they honestly don't know what other cultures and sub-cultures are like. People are often clueless beyond their own narrow boundaries, and there are a lot of boundaries. Where's the norm?

The more one sees of the world, the more one realizes the vast array of different ways that people can structure their societies, and then one comes to realize how little they are really different. The key is in recognizing which things are important. Are these differences going to cause conflict? Which things we have in common can be used to form a bond? In the meantime, every time I walk into a classroom full of Mexican-American and Puerto Rican and African-American kids, they get to know middle class white America just a little better, and I hope they are just a little more comfortable with us, as I get more comfortable with them.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Ego, The Id, and Why Should I Go to College?

It's not such a bad day here in Streeterville. it's 59 degrees under partly cloudy skies. The sailboats are back even though it's a bit cool yet on the water. Looking east toward Michigan I can see one small private sailboat drifting slowly across the lake and one big cruising sailboat with, oh I don't know, 3 or 4 masts. There are lots of sails and I'd wager this boat is at least as big as the Nina or Pinta, possibly the Santa Maria. Takes a crew to sail this puppy, and there it goes just outside the concrete barrier in the deep water. Can summer be far away? I think not.

One of my AP students had a panic attack in the middle of the AP U.S. History Exam last Friday. He said he was sick, was about to throw up, and couldn't focus or think any more. He quit in the middle of the essay section and walked out. I feel very bad for him, but speaking with other teachers, it is universally accepted that the young man in question is a head case. He puts pressure on himself and psyches himself out. He is an A student, but he doesn't like sitting in the front of the room. It brings too much attention to him. At times he has back problems, also acknowledged as psychosomatic, and asks to stand for entire class periods.

This is a student who has already received a scholarship to Northern Illinois University, the first school he applied to. After being accepted at NIU and being offered a scholarship he didn't apply anywhere else. I do not intend to disparage NIU, but there are pecking orders of universities in this land called America, and this kid may very well have done better. He didn't want the pressure.

Today Mr. Student A told the head of the counseling department that he has decided that he doesn't want to go to college at all. He thinks he'd like to "live life." Apparently the pressure of going to any college has gotten to him now. He's convinced himself that he doesn't really want a lot of money and he's willing to work at low-paying jobs and "live life," so long as he doesn't have to go to college.

How do you broach the topic with someone, "Hey kid you need a shrink." This kid obviously has some issues that need to be dealt with. He needs counseling from a psychologist. The head of the counseling department struck out with him. The guy who works in the post-secondary lab helping kids choose schools and line up funding struck out with him. Now Ms. Counseling Department came to me and said, "Would you talk with him? He respects you." A simple case of Dr. R.D. to the rescue. Oh Lord, this kid may be in trouble. Or maybe I can be just the one to reach him. Who knows? I am going to give it my best shot, though.

It's funny (Funny odd, not funny Ha! Ha!) how people build things up in their heads that get in the way of their success. This kid is an A student, but he has convinced himself that he's not smart and he is just diligent. Got news kid, 99% of smart is just diligence. There was a time that I convinced myself that I wanted to be an actor. I was scared shitless. I get awful stage fright, yet I subjected myself to this for 15-20 years. Babs is a full-time writer, who has had a great deal of success in her life, yet she continually looks to other people as the really competent, smart ones (never me mind you, she lives with me and knows I'm no better than her, but others.). The list goes on. Lots of people on this planet. Lots of different ways to be neurotic.

The thing is, most of us live with our neuroses and keep them within certain boundaries. They may inhibit us to a degree, but we manage to be functional most times. It's just that when those neuroses get outside of those boundaries they begin to inhibit one's ability to function normally. They can screw up a life. As an educator, it is my job to try to prepare kids for being successful, whatever that means in individual cases. No one ever told me that I'd also find it in my job description to try to keep kids from self-destructing. Oh you expect it with drug problems, and pregnancies, and gangs, etc., etc., etc. You just never expect to have to convince a kid with a lot of ability and a high IQ that their best interests would be served by going to college. You never expect to have to deal with the inner demons that can totally ruin kids' lives.

It's not like I'm Super Teach or anything. I know a little about psychology. I once volunteered in a Crisis Intervention Center, but trying to make a difference in a teenaged boy's life, that could affect the rest of his life, that's high stakes. All I can do is try to be a friend and as rational as possible. I just hope he buys it.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Best and the Brightest, Rainbow Coalition Format

It was lovely and summerlike in Streeterville most of the day today. The sun was shining and it reached 81 degrees at one point. According to the weather service, it has dropped significantly in the past hour or so. They say it's 62 degrees with light rain, but I'm skeptical about this one. When I arrived home it was 80 degrees at the Mini. I went out for a little 6 mile run and made it back before the rain began. It did not feel like low 60's out there. Of course I was sweating from running 6 miles and that may have skewed my perception. At any rate, the view from the 14th floor was great today. I awoke this morning and looked out the window to see 3 fishermen in a small boat out near the concrete barrier, casting their lines and trying to catch something. This afternoon I arrived home and looked out the windows only to spy the first sailboat of the season. It was a lovely vision in white, white hull on the boat itself, and white sails filled with the wind. It floated effortlessly and silently across the lake. This ladies and gentlemen is clean, non-polluting transportation. Admittedly, it is an expensive piece of transportation, but clean nonetheless.

Yesterday I mentioned that I was spending the week testing the best and brightest of the next generation all this week. I am the Advanced Placement Coordinator for a public high school. This morning as the kids puzzled over their AP English Lit exams, I was studying them and it occurred to me that the best and the brightest doesn't look the same as it once did in America. When I was in high school, the integration of schools was still a new concept and most African-American kids and Mexican kids didn't have a snowball's chance in Hades of being included in that list. "The Best and the Brightest" was a list that was very white. It was very suburban. It was very clean-cut.

It's really amazing to think of all the racial and ethnic stereotypes that are passed along in America. Even today, most people think of the best and the brightest as an amalgam of white upper-middle class kids and a healthy mix of Asian kids thrown in. This stereotype persists, despite the fact that an African-American man who was at the top of his class at Harvard Law, currently resides in the White House. These stereotypes persist, despite the fact that any number of Latino men and women rise to the top in their fields, Governors, Doctors, Lawyers, Judges, journalists, scientists, etc., etc., etc.

I looked around the room this morning at the group of kids from my school in the Back of the Yards neighborhood and realized that this is a group of kids who will be successful, who will go to college, who will lead productive lives, who will have happy families, and who are the future of America. And they do not look like the productive, creative America that most of America sees in their minds (and their stereotypes). Sometimes the best and the brightest are little skinny black girls and tall pregnant black girls who made a little mistake. Sometimes the best and the brightest are very rotund Mexican girls with a very sharp intellect and a very good work ethic. Sometimes the best and the brightest look like the kind of guys that many white Americans cross the street to avoid when they see them coming. Sometimes the best and the brightest are flamboyantly gay.

Oh there are some kids in the mix that look more traditional. Some kids just look the part of the nerd. There is no amount of blackness or Mexicanness that can hide that trait. The shirts and pants never fit quite right. The boys usually prefer khakis over jeans. Some of them even have the stereotypical thick glasses. These kids for some reason are what they are and the gangs declare them off limits and they go about their lives being very nice but nerdy kids with excellent grades and a love for teachers and school, and they go off to college one day and don't usually come back to the neighborhood again.

Remember all those stereotypes of black kids and Mexican kids. Black boys are a bunch of thugs and the girls are just waiting to get pregnant and start scamming the system. Mexican kids are lazy and have no ambition. Well these kids are black kids and Mexican kids and they are most assuredly not like that. They are genuinely a part of "The Best and the Brightest." Oh there are some kids at school who live up (or down as the case may be) to the stereotypes, but that Dear Friends is the subject of another essay. I am here to tell you that I have seen the future of America and it is decidedly not white, upper-middle class snotty kids from the suburbs. And that is quite alright with me. I guess underneath it all I'm a bit of a softy. Almost have to be to be a professional in education. But the upshot is that I love all these kids. They are great kids and I really like being a part of helping them succeed, of helping them reach for something higher and beating the neighborhood. When that happens, that is my reward.

I guess what I'm getting at is that intelligence and ability knows no color. It knows no ethnicity. Neither does stupidity, and I have seen my share of white kids from so-called good backgrounds who definitely are not the sharpest tack in the box. In spite of stereotypes about Asian kids, I have seen Chinese kids who would much rather skip school, get high, and play video games than get into Harvard and play violin on the side. We all need to adjust our realities a little. Sometimes those kids in the baggy pants may not be thugs. Sometimes those swishy black gay guys may be going to law school. Sometimes an overweight woman of Mexican heritage may just save your life in an Emergency Room. Get used to it. Quit looking at the color and ethnicity and start looking at the people.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Larry the Doorman and Rush Hour Traffic

It's not quite the glorious day today that it has been for the previous 3 or 4 days, but it's not bad today. It's 63 degrees under rainy skies at the Mini. The view from the 14th floor is somewhat gray. There are still a few assorted ignoramuses (ignorami?) out on the running path who haven't figured it out that the weather has taken a turn for the more humid. (About 100% out just now.)

In our continuing series on the World Series of Weather Prediction, featuring Larry the Doorman vs. Phil the Groundhog, Larry the Doorman came through again today. The newspaper and online weather predictions today said that we could expect rain late tonight. I was thinking of going out for a run. Fortunately Larry the Doorman was there to admonish me that rain was imminent. Taking his advice to heart, I packed my gym bag (with an umbrella) and went off to the gym for an indoor workout instead. Sure enough, when I came out of the 900 North building it was pouring rain.

I cannot speak for Phil the Groundhog because he only predicts once a year, and won't be speaking to us about the weather until next February. I cannot speak for the Old Farmer's Almanack because I don't own one and I, frankly, haven't spoken to any "Old Farmers," for a really long time. I live in downtown Chicago. I read the papers. I watch the TV weather. And, for the record, it's Larry the Doorman who steers me right. He's rarely wrong in meteorological matters. If there were a Nobel Prize for weather prediction, Larry would be in the running.

All of that being said, I was driving on the Dan Ryan Expressway this morning (after having navigated Lake Shore Drive and the Stevenson Expressway) and I got to thinking. Bruce Springsteen tells us that "The highway's filled with broken heroes on a last chance power drive...." Frankly, I drive on the highway a lot and the highway is not filled with broken heroes. The highway's filled with assholes and idiots. It's just that the truth is not nearly so poetic. You'd need an early 80's serious punk band to sing that one.

What is it with morons who want to drive in the far left lane until the very last moment and then cut across 3 lanes of traffic and cut in front of you, causing you to slam on your brakes and hope the Hummer on your ass doesn't slam into your ass, especially considering you're driving a Mini Cooper. (OK, you're not driving a Mini Cooper. I am.) Why is it that when I get into the appropriate lane to exit there is always someone in front of me that seems intent on driving 20 mph, and some guy behind me that seems intent on driving 80 mph? How did these people get their driver's licenses? How do they keep them?

You'll note that I'm hitting all the serious issues today. One last one for the road, so to speak. Why the heck is it that there is always more traffic on Tuesday morning than on Monday morning? Are there that many people who have a hangover and want to sleep in on Monday morning? Are there that many people who went to someplace warm and tropical for a long weekend and are taking an extra day off? Week in and week out? For that matter, why is the traffic so damned heavy on Friday afternoons? Serious traffic jams at 4 PM on Friday boys and girls. Remember all of those people who stayed home on Monday to allow me easy driving to work? They take off early on Friday afternoons too. They're all on the highway trying to get to the airport for a little R&R on Friday. When does the work get done? Tuesday through Thursday guys. That's when. I thought we all learned that back in college. Weekends begin on Thursday night. Work (or classes) resume, maybe Monday afternoon, maybe Tuesday morning.

These are just some of the issues I've been pondering as I test the best and the brightest of the next generation this week. They're all consumed with thinking about global warming and nuclear proliferation and ending racism forever. They are the next generation. They believe they can change the world and make it a better place, as did we. Perhaps they will. Along the way, they will undoubtedly have to fight the traffic and deal with a lot of mundane things they would rather not. It's all a part of the process they call life.

Before I go, I'd just like to give a little shout out to Babs. Yesterday I gave space here to the possibility of do-overs in life. Today in her blog, Babs took up the same issue as it relates to today's youth, and their possiblities. Give it a look. It's called Slouching Toward Adulthood. It's located at See you later.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Tweaking a Dream

It's a lovely afternoon in Streeterville. The sun is shining. The clouds have rolled away. It's 63 degrees at the Mini. When I got home from a hard day of AP test giving at The Outpost, I looked out the windows on the 14th floor and on the lake I saw one of those big power boats motoring across the way. It appeared to be one of those 2 story jobs with a full finished basement. It had TV antennas, radio antennas, radar, sonar, and things on the roof going in whirly circles. It was what my friend Colin would call a 6 bikini boat, minimum.

Colin was a great friend, and an interesting study in alternative approaches to life. At some point he decided that he was too old to be a hippy carpenter anymore, so he decided he'd quit rebelling against his PhD parents and become a hippy PhD who teaches history. University lecturing is much less taxing on the body than carpentry, and a good bit more secure once one attains tenure. Last I heard from Colin he had left Champaign-Urbana and the U of Illinois for the East Coast. Babs did a Google search a while back and as it turns out he is teaching history in Virginia.

Colin, like many of us of the Baby Boom, initially did not want to do it like his parents. He couldn't see himself in a traditional role. Yet when one achieves middle age, one wakes up in one's 40's one day and realizes that one does not have a lot of money, a lot of possessions, a pension, an IRA, or frankly, not a lot of anything except good memories of a life well-lived. It was time for a do-over.

A lot of us experienced do-overs, and somehow it turned out OK. I dropped out of grad school to pursue an acting career and after many years of working bad day jobs to pay the bills while pursuing acting at night I decided to return to school and become an educator. A lot of us drifted along, enjoying life while not thinking much about growing old, only to have life slap us in the face somewhere along the way and tell us, "Wake up Bozo. You were born with a good wit, but not rich. You're going to have to join the working world and prepare for old age and retirement."

Then there are a number of acquaintances I have acquired over the years who refused to give in. These individuals have gone on as if youth were eternal, and have drifted into their 40's and 50's, as my father would have said, "without a pot to piss in." Colin saw fit to give up carpentry and go into academia. Another carpenter friend of mine, a gifted artist with an MFA continues to struggle with his small carpentry business and selling a bit of art here and there. He has no health insurance. He has no savings to speak of. This is a guy who seems overdue for a do-over. Yet he, and a whole group of friends just keep on. What will they do in 10 or 20 years? As they age, the do-over becomes less and less possible. Life did not give in and meet them on their terms. Now what? 130 IQ's and artistic talent aside, if you don't play by the rules, you get squashed. One day you wake up and you're broke, out of work, and living in a homeless shelter, or a flophouse.

Babs has spent a great deal of time wondering if the stakes have been raised for our current generation of youth, and they will never have the option of a do-over. Do they have the option of drifting for a while and then getting serious at some later time in life? Do they have to get it right the first time? Do they really have to figure out what they're going to do for the rest of their lives when they're still teenagers? Well that is one for Babs to confront. As for my generation, a lot of people did get the option of a do-over, and a lot more refused to even consider bailing on the dream. Now the dream is turning on them. Decided to live the dream no matter what? One in a million make the dream pan out. The rest of us have to give the dream a little tweak every now and again, to ensure our survival and comfort.

Monday, May 4, 2009

It's a New Day

The last three days have been absolutely wonderful in many ways. The sun has shone. The temperatures have been in the 60's. The flowering trees are in bloom. The rain has stopped for a while. It is early May and springtime has elected to visit itself on the City of Chicago. It was a slow day at the Outpost in Back of the Yards, as I tested some students in my classes and prepared for testing AP students the rest of the week. What does this mean? It means that, as the AP Coordinator for the school, I will be consumed with testing students, coordinating the entire AP program for the school, seeing that the materials get sent off to Princeton, NJ at the end of the week, and generate the school's bill for the tests, scores, etc. It also means that I will have a substitute covering my regular classes all week while I pose as an administrator. A lovely break from the norm.

It's 63 degrees under sunny skies at the Mini. The slanting rays of the late afternoon sun give one a warm, fuzzy feeling and it's always pleasant to note that there is the first boat sighting of the season that is not a cruise boat or police boat. Welcome back pleasure boaters. Welcome back greenery. Welcome back warmth.

This past weekend, I had the usual chores to attend to, but somehow the weather being what it was, I neglected to do many of them. Found myself shopping for groceries this afternoon apres work. My good friend Al was in town this weekend. Al Fresco, that is. Babs and I found much time for Al. We sat outdoors for lunch on Saturday, and were so pleased by dining with Al that I got myself a wee bit sunburned on the top of my head. Getting a bit bald in one particular spot in the rear there.

On Sunday we took a stroll over to the Viagra Triangle to sip coffee, people watch, and generally soak up the atmosphere. For the uninitiated, The Viagra Triangle is an area with a small plaza at the intersection where State and Rush merge. Tavern on Rush is across the street, and Luxe Bar, and Hugo's Frog Bar, and an assortment of other upscale drinkeries and eateries are located there. It is so tagged the Viagra Triangle because of the triangular shape of the plaza between Rush and State, and for the large numbers of men in their late-middle years who hang out there with surgically enhanced babes on their arms. It's a place for money, those who wish they had money, and those who actively seek money.

On the weekends, in warm weather season, the Triangle is packed. The outdoor seating at the restaurants is packed. The street becomes a place to cruise for expensive cars, expensive motorcycles, antique cars, and the merely curious. If one sits in the plaza and watches for an hour or so, he can see Lamborghinis, Maseratis, Ferraris, Bentleys, Rolls Royces, an assortment of Porsches, Mercedes-Benzs, the occasional Cobra (vintage), and maybe a Duesenberg. The guys with huge six figure salaries show up on the motorcycles they always wanted as a teenager, and now they can afford. Then some dude in a beat up Saturn comes cruising down the street and you just want to tell him, "Hey man the working class part of town is up that way." But hey, it's a free country.

There is a 15 minute Loading Zone Only, Use flashers, area along the East Side of the Viagra Triangle, but hikers from the Valet Parking at Tavern on Rush routinely park cars there, and if you have a very expensive or unusual car, no one ever says a word. The cops absolutely love the Viagra Triangle. They look the other way about parking violations. There almost always are one or two of them hanging about, drinking coffee, smoking cigars, and bullshitting with people they apparently know there. The bicycle cops ride up and join them, and rest for a while. Then come the tourists and the gawkers.

If you listen closely, you can pick up some snatches of very interesting conversation at the Triangle. Yesterday, some nouveau riche black guy in a $100,000 Mercedes pulled up and got out. As he made his way to the coffee kiosk, some woman came over excitedly using her cell phone to take pictures of the guy, his big black Mercedes with the ghetto rims, of the young guy doing magic tricks for the kids, of anything and everything. At one point she turned to Babs and I and blurted out, "You just don't see this shit in Wyoming!" Then it was off for more photos and awe and wonderment.

Then there was the guy in the Bentley who pulled up and came over and sat with some friends. He was 50ish and wore $200 blue jeans and $500 casual shoes. I wasn't sure what the story was that he was regaling his friends with, but what I heard was, "So he says, I'm the Alderman. I'll park wherever the fuck I want to...." Later I found out it had to do with an Alderman who represents the area around Wrigley Field and he had been the topic of one of those TV news Gotcha! segments.

It was a truly lovely weekend, and I hated to see it go, but there it was Monday morning again. The week has started off, though, with a certain charm to it. Work is not bad. The sun and the warmth have continued. It's only a little over a month until summer vacation begins. (Ah, the life of an educator.) Oh, and for the record, Babs and I elected to get rid of the 10 year old Dell PC I had been working on and this is the very first blog posted on the brand spanking new MacBook Air. It's a new day boys and girls. Enjoy.